Do industries that kill more people than they employ have a right to exist?

A new study outlines why the tobacco and coal industries warrant "corporate death sentences."

  • A study developed a formula to identify industries that do more bad than good.
  • The U.S. coal and tobacco qualify as having a net negative value to society.
  • Should we tolerate any industry that makes a profit?

Joshua Pearce of Michigan Technological University has raised an interesting question: If "The unwritten rule with industry is you get to make money if you're a benefit to society," what about an industry that creates more damage than good? Should such an industry be allowed to continue operation, or should it be shut down?"

In a study just published in Social Sciences on February 18, researchers led by Pearce found: "In the singular search for profits, some corporations inadvertently kill humans. If this routinely occurs throughout an industry, it may no longer serve a net positive social purpose for society and should be eliminated."

This said, his team's research has resulted in a non-political, objective method for determining whether an industry warrants a "corporate death sentence."

The factors that go into the equation

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Pearce cites a very simple way to assess whether or not an industry does more bad than good: Does it kill more people than it employs? Pearce's calculus is based on what he suggests are three unassailable premises, as stated in his paper:

  1. Everyone has the right to life. This is explicitly called for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly. In addition, it is intuitively obvious that the right to life is the primary right as it is necessary to be alive to enjoy any other right (i.e., the right to work).
  2. Everyone has the right to work. This is explicitly called for in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Corporations are large companies or groups of companies authorized to act as a single legal entity (person) to efficiently generate profit for the benefit of humans, and one of their primary additional benefits is job creation. Thus, corporations help facilitate the right to work.
  3. Human law should give corporations the right to exist if they are beneficial to humanity. Corporations are human constructs created by law to benefit humanity. Thus, in the simplest possible case, corporations can be viewed as good as they create profit and jobs, unless their operation interferes with the right to life of humans they are meant to benefit.

"If we know that life trumps employment because you have to be alive to work," Pearce tells Michigan Tech News, "then for a company or industry to exist it must employ more people than it kills in a year. What this paper has done is set the minimum bar for industry existence."

Pearce acknowledges that, as the paper says, "There are benefits corporations can provide that go beyond employment (e.g., products that provide a benefit, gifts to charity, etc) and also that there are corporate harms that are less severe than death (e.g., adverse ecosystem impacts that harm nature and nonhuman species, which only indirectly effects humans)." Still, those pluses and minuses are difficult to quantify due to inadequate data and the fact that longer data periods are required for smoothing out fluctuations in such numbers.

"Surprisingly," says Pearce, his analysis "showed that there are at least two industries in America right now that are killing more people annually than they employ." That would be the coal and tobacco industries.

Numbers tell the story

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Pearce became interested in developing such a metric while working on a previous study that involved calculating the number of American lives that could be saved in switching U.S. production of electricity from coal to solar.

Of the coal- and tobacco-industry case studies his new research scrutinized, Pearce says, "After running the numbers, the results are shocking. Every coal mining job in the U.S. demands literally one American life every year. For tobacco jobs, it is four times worse. The study concludes both industries warrant corporate death penalties."

The coal industry:

  • The industry employs 51,795 people based on data from the United States Energy Information Administration.
  • The total number of annual U.S. premature deaths from coal-fired, electricity-based air pollution is 52,015, using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

The tobacco industry:

  • The industry employs 124,342 people based on data from the North American Industry Classification System.
  • The total number of annual U.S. deaths from direct and second-hand smoke is 522,000 using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

Life (for workers) after death (of an industry)

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Pearce and his co-authors suggest that while not painless, the dissolution of these industries might actually work out well for the people displaced. His team has written previously of the income and health benefits to be enjoyed by coal workers who are retrained to work in the solar energy industry. They've also written about how current tobacco farmers can earn more and reduce a number of risk factors by repurposing their fields as solar farms.

Corporate charter control

The paper suggests the revocation of companies' corporate charters as the most workable means of executing an industry. The charters allow these entities to do business. They could be revoked at the federal level, or in any of the 49 states (plus Washington, D.C.) that retain the right to nullify a charter.

Obviously, the larger issue is summoning public opinion and legislative support for such a mechanism.

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